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The Outsider: Death by a thousand online petitions

Banning commercial operators on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams was the subject of a recent online petition.

A couple of times a week, my inbox receives a petition for something or other requesting my support; a modern, vastly more efficient, digital version of canvassing neighbourhood homes to garner support on a social, political or environmental issues. “Sign with a click” is the call to action. OK, that doesn’t sound too bad. Click.

“Vince, can you chip in $3 to get this petition on the agenda?”

Nope. Close tab.

This is about as far as I get with most of these digital petitions, though on the rare occasion I will go the extra mile of emailing a template letter to the B.C. Government about an issue I’m very passionate about. However, the knock-on effect of engaging with these email marketing campaigns is that my inbox is now targeted for all sorts of causes. Some examples of online petitions that I’ve “supported” of late (with a click): Opposing a rescue dog ban by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; Provincial Park Status for Duncan River Ancient Cedars; Protect access to abortion in Canada; Hey Tim Hortons, Accept Reusables Mugs Again!; End tax exemption for Catholic Church; Save B​.​C. Wolves.

Some examples of online petitions I’ve received (or seen shared on social media) in the past that I have chosen not to support, but had to open the link to make sure they were for real: Pronouns in Microsoft Teams!; Regulate BC’s Gas Prices; Build the Whistler Blackcomb Halfpipe; Keep the alpine lifts spinning on Whistler Mountain past closing day; Ban of commercial operators on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams (ROGD).

If you read the news in these pages or online in the last couple of weeks, you probably knew that last one was coming. If you haven’t got up to speed on the facts, check out the excellent reporting by Brandon Barrett in the Aug. 18 edition of Pique (“Petition calls for ban of commercial boats on River of Golden Dreams—but are they the real problem?”). I’ll be keeping to my own opinion for this column.

What got me with this particular petition was that it targeted commercial operators on the ROGD, as if these two local companies were somehow dredging our precious river of its natural resources and clocking beavers over the head with paddles while they were at it. Sure, warm sunny days are busy for these operators, sending dozens of canoes and kayaks down Whistler’s favourite river. While I don’t work on Alta Lake or regularly float the ROGD, my daily dog walk route passes its banks. And with what I’ve witnessed, I’m not convinced banning these commercial operators (as the petition argues) is “the obvious solution.”

A Global News story on Aug. 24 (no doubt triggered by said petition and Pique’s reporting) noted: “The municipality itself said a count of peak traffic on the river found about 70 per cent of watercraft were being used by the public, rather than commercial operators.” So shitcanning two local businesses and letting the public rampantly float the river with wall-to-wall floaties is the obvious solution? Something doesn’t add up there.

I get that the ROGD is a sensitive ecosystem, and it’s terribly overloaded during the summer. Boats dragging in low water is no good for fish spawning channels, and trash is never good for anyone or anything. Having education and oversight over visitors choosing to experience Whistler’s most picturesque water activity is more important than ever. Whistler’s mayor and council recognizes that, defending the commercial operators and turning the looking glass back onto the public—that 70 per cent of users, some of whom will treat the ROGD with the respect it deserves, some of whom simply want to join an alcohol-fuelled flotilla.

Singling out commercial operators as the source of the ROGD’s ongoing overuse is shortsighted. Could we possibly ban public use and require all commercial operators to only sell guided tours? Or ticket the river to a maximum number of public and private vessels per day to give it a chance to heal? We live in a free country, but as we’ve demonstrated in the last few years, a lack of responsible citizenry means the freedom to explore this terrain comes with the caveat that natural attractions such as the ROGD are dying the death of a thousand cuts (or in this case, floaties).

Unfortunately, not all good-willed petitions get it right, and can serve the agenda of the petition’s starter more than the cause itself. But with the all-too-easy, sign-with-a-click mechanic, the “support” for such petitions falls into the same trap of doing one’s own research by scrolling Facebook headlines. I’ve fallen into that trap, too, in the past, so I’m making the commitment to not sign any more online petitions without first independently verifying their facts. Maybe that will lead to a few less silly online petitions in my inbox.


Vince Shuley hopes to never be the subject of an online petition. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email or Instagram @whis_vince.